Illinois Public Media News
Ameren Illinois says its natural gas customers can expect to pay about the same for gas this winter as they did last year.
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris said they estimate gas prices to continue at their current level. The gas delivered by the utility averages about $0.61 per term last winter --- and Morris said the average this winter should be $0.62 per therm. He said that would continue a pattern of moderate natural gas prices that's been going on for about three years.
"It's pretty much been fueled by sluggish economies, soft worldwide demand for energy in all forms, and then a little more recently, the discovery of tremendous supplies of natural gas in shale formations right here in the United States and Canada," Morris said.
Morris also said that Ameren Illinois has enough natural gas available to meet customer needs even during a tough winter. While Ameren has most of its natural gas supplies hedged or "price-protected" to ensure against market volatility, the price the utility charges for delivering that gas to customers could go up. Morris says their delivery rate has already increased slightly, and could go up again this winter.
"There was a very small increase in the last rate case we had before the Illinois Commerce Commission," Morris said. "There is another rate case before the Commerce Commission now, which will not be decided until January. And I really can't predict what the Commission will do."
If the ICC grants the full rate increase requested by Ameren, Morris said natural gas delivery rates would go up around $4.85 a month for former CIPS customers, and $7.47 a month for former customers of Illinois Power. But Morris said it's more likely that smaller increases would be approved.
Morris said the delivery rate typically makes up about one-third of a customer's natural gas bill, with the rest paying for the gas itself. Morris said Ameren makes its profit on the delivery charge, and simply passes along the cost of the gas itself.
Morris advises customers to visit Ameren's ActOnEnergy.com website to review tips for saving on energy costs. He said customers can enroll in a Budget Billing plan at AmerenIllinois.com to better manage their energy bills.
It will likely be at least next week before the Champaign County Zoning Board of Appeals signs off on plans for a wind farm, and forwarding the proposal to the County Board.
The ZBA is scheduled to meet Thursday night, and Planning and Zoning Director John Hall says two of three agreements - a county road agreement and one for reclamation - have been reached.
But he says they haven't been sent to the board, and Hall says a state law requires no more than a 30-day window between the ZBA and county board meetings to discuss wind farm proposals. Hall says having another week to meet would work to the zoning board's advantage.
"Given that there are two large documents that still need to be considered, I think it would be difficult to take final action this Thursday," he said. "So, final action probably would be possible, but we need to continue anyhow, and frankly, we haven't yet got a copy of the township road agreement."
Hall says the zoning board will likely schedule another hearing for next Thursday, October 20th, prior to the 7 p.m. Champaign County Board meeting. He says that would meet the state's demands for the county board to take up the wind farm proposal by its November 17 meeting. The ZBA has been meeting on the plan since late August.
If the Vermilion County Board signs off on a road agreement with Chicago-based Invenergy this week, County Board Chair Jim McMahon says the company could begin the initial work on the county's 104 turbines as soon as Monday, starting just northeast of Kickapoo State Park. Thirty of the turbines are targeted for Champaign County.
McMahon says the lack of zoning in his county has allowed authorities to avoid other agreements that Champaign County is dealing with now.
"154 people have signed up and said 'we want wind turbines. 104 of them did get wind turbines," he said. "And without zoning, the county board has no input and should have no input without zoning on what they do with their land, unless it was an illegal action."
McMahon says the disadvantage of having no zoning is that Vermilion County can't increase setbacks on the property of anyone concerned about the noise or shadows caused by wind turbines. The Vermilion County Board meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Invenergy's wind farm is expected to start operations by early 2013.
UPDATE: Vermilion County Board Chairman Jim McMahon says the board unanimously approved the road agreement Tuesday night, and county officials plan to meet with Invenergy later this week with hopes of starting wind farm construction by Monday.
Eastern Illinois University has replaced its old coal-fired steam plant with one the largest renewable energy projects in the U.S.
The school holds a grand opening Friday afternoon for its Renewable Energy Center. The facility using gasification technology will rely on more than 27,000 tons of wood chips a year to heat the campus. The chips are fed into a low-oxygen, high temperature environment, and gas emissions will generate the steam for that heat.
EIU President William Perry says just a handful of American universities have this type of plant, one that will provide some academic lessons as well.
"We can do some public service in the areas of alternative energy," he said. "We plan to use the site, which has more land available for field trips, for K-12 students, and other individuals in the community who are interested in that kind of operation."
Perry says the savings on the energy contract allowed Eastern to pay off the cost of the energy center without state money or student fees. EIU Energy and Sustainability Coordinator Ryan Siegel says a lot of things had to fall in place.
That includes two bills passed by Illinois lawmakers - one extended the payback periods for performance contracts to 20 years, and another allowed pilot projects to be paid for under that same window of time.
Siegel says those measures, and the energy savings from the Center itself, will pay for the $80-million facility.
"The entire project reduced the forward energy and water consumption of campus," he said. "It reduced our future costs, allowing us to pay off the debt over a 20-year time frame."
The facility is the result of a collaboration with Honeywell. It's expected to save EIU more than $140-million over the next two decades.
(Photo courtsey of Eastern Illinois University)
University of Illinois students are taking part in a competition where they are presenting a solar-powered home that they have designed and constructed. It's part of the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon, an event that has attracted students from 20 universities around the world.
Graduate student Beth Neuman is the project manager for the U of I's team. She said her team's entry is designed to serve as an immediate replacement for people whose homes were destroyed by a tornado.
"Last year, multiple tornadoes came through Central Illinois, and we actually visited Streator, Illinois, and they were hit by a tornado, and a lot of families were affected by that," Neuman said. "So, we sort of wanted to focus on a market that was closer to home, and help people in our own community."
Neuman said the portable home can be shipped in two units by truck, with solar panels mounted on the roof. She estimates the cost for a single home at around $260,000. However, she said if it was mass produced, it would be more affordable. Neuman said architecture, affordability, and energy balance are just some of the factors that each home will be judged on in the competition.
The houses in the Solar Decathlon are currently on display at the National Mall's West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C. A winner will be announced Oct 1.
One of the 101 Ameren Illinois workers sent to help repair power lines in Vermont says Hurricane Irene unleashed flash-flooding in the state of a kind unseen in Illinois.
Mark Drawve is an electrical superintendent with Ameren's Mattoon office. He said Vermont's terrain, with its steep hills, causes devastating floods that have cause damage, in a way that wouldn't happen in Illinois.
"Not in this form, no," Drawve said. "We're in Illinois, which is mostly pretty flat and rural. They're having the challenge of even having to rebuild whole lines, because the water just washed out complete sections of transmission lines and sub-transmission lines. So they are in the process of building brand-new lines."
Drawve said he and his fellow Ameren Illinois crew members are working 17-hour days to restore power in and around Vermont's second largest city, Rutland. The area is served by Central Vermont Public Service. Drawve said that besides washing out power lines, the flooding has washed out roads, making it hard for their crews to travel around the region.
"We sent some crews Sunday evening to areas that they knew would be impacted by the flash floods," Drawve said. "Because of that, until they get some roads repaired, we can't even get those crews back, or hooked up back with the main force. And they continue to work on those roads as we speak."
With all these difficulties, Drawve said that as of Tuesday morning, line crews had restored power to about 18,000 of the 38,000 people who lost power in Vermont. He said Ameren crews did the work for about 6,000 of those customers in the Rutland area. But Drawve said they are not used to working in hills and valleys --- and said there is talk of moving the Ameren crew to another area, and bringing in a Canadian crew more familiar with Vermont's type of terrain.
Plans for a wind farm in Champaign County drew mostly spectators in the first of what could be several hearings before the county's Zoning Board of Appeals.
About 60 people came to hear from Chicago-based developer Invenergy discuss its project. Champaign County's portion of the large farm would mean 30 turbines north of Royal, producing 48 megawatts of power. More than 100 turbines will be located in Vermilion County, where a building permit was approved last spring.
The majority of those who spoke supported Invenergy's plans to erect 30 wind turbines in the northeast part of the county, north of Royal. But some had concerns about the wind farm's impact on property values. And others had questions about the road agreements that Invenergy has yet to reach with township governments. Deanne Simms of Penfield called the prospect of being surrounded by turbines 'disturbing,' and she questioned the impact on property values, and Invenergy's road agreement at the end of the wind farm's life span.
"So my question is whatever standard they come down to when they leave, who's going to pay to fix the roads?" she said. "Whose taxes are going up to pay for that?"
But Philo resident Michael Herbert said Invenergy has been an economic boon for his electrical workers' union, providing jobs with more than 350 turbines in the counties served by its members.
"This project and Invenergy, having worked with them before, they built quality projects," he said. "And having driven out on on the roads after these projects are done, the roads are as good or better when completed."
The company's business development manager, Greg Leutchman, said the first hearing presented a chance for area residents to form their own opinion. But before the project can move forward, he said the road agreement must be finalized, as well as ones for decommissioning the turbines, and land reclamation.
"With those agreements, we just want to make sure that we're taking the right information into account, that we're talking to the right people," Leutchman said. "Getting the agreements done to make sure they work for the county and the townships as well as creating a successful project."
Four more ZBA wind farm hearings are scheduled through next month. But County Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said it is better the meetings stretch into October than disturb what he calls a 'delicate negotiation' that's gone on over two years, with still nothing in writing with landowners. Invenergy still has to settle road agreements, as well as decommissioning and reclamation plans.
The next SBA hearing on the wind farm proposal is set for Sept. 1.
(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)
A utility watchdog group believes it can gather enough opposition to turn Ameren's request for a rate hike into a rate cut.
The Citizens Utility Board is urging the public to submit comments against the utility's call for a 90-million dollar increase in delivery charges. Next week, the Illinois Commerce Commission conducts its only hearing on the request. It's scheduled for Tuesday in Springfield.
In Champaign Thursday, CUB Executive Director David Kolata noted that Ameren earned 650-million dollars in profits last year, and that they're up over 60-percent in Illinois alone.
"I think they have a hard time justifying a rate increase when our experts the Illinois Attorney General's office hired looked at this, they found that they couldn't justify it." he said. "Ameren has very clear that they're going to come in every year for five, six, seven, years in a row and try to raise rates. That's their business strategy."
Regulators reduced Ameren's original rate hike request from $111-million to $90-million.
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris contends the rate hike request is needed for safe, reliable power delivery, and for higher operating costs. And he says delivery costs have skyrocketed, and that's solely what this rate hike is for.
"It's designed to allow us to recover our cost of providing safe and reliable service.." said Morris, "...and to earn a reasonable rate of return, which is necessary for any for-profit company, which Ameren is."
Morris says Illinois' corporate income tax increase has cost Ameren an additional $41-million dollars. Both CUB and the ICC are taking comments on the proposed rate hike.
CUB also used the Champaign news conference to oppose a measure that passed the legislature last spring that would allow for 'smart grid' investments for utilities. But Kolata says it would also make it easier for utilities to pass off rate increases. Speaking in Chicago Thursday, Governor Pat Quinn vowed to veto that measure, and for legislators make improvements to the bill this fall.
Construction on a center dedicated to capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide began Wednesday at Richland Community College in Decatur. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas linked to climate change.
The new facility, known as the National Sequestration Education Center, will be used as a teaching lab to train Richland students on how to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. The center, which is the only one of its kind, is being funded by the U.S. Energy Department. David Larrick, director of sequestration at Richland Community College, said he expects the new center will garner additional interest in renewable energy.
"I am in favorable of renewable energy resources, but we're not moving there fast enough," Larrick said. "Carbon capture sequestration can be used now to reduce atmospheric CO2 emissions. We can't wait for decades for wind and solar to be our primary energy resources."
The actual carbon sequestration won't happen at the new center, but rather in a well on the grounds of Archer Daniels Midland Company in Decatur.
"So, they'll be able to monitor the wells, groundwater, soils, atmospheric conditions, CO2 levels, maybe even do some seismic surveys," Larrick explained. "There will be a lot of real world data that they can use. It's not just going to be learned in a textbook."
Larrick said the facility should be open by next spring. He said officials with Richland Community College plan to revise the school's curriculum by adding a degree for students who want to learn about capturing and storing carbon dioxide. He said the degree could be available by January 2012.
"We're going to have to my knowledge the first associate of applied sciences degree in the nation in sequestration technology," Larrick added.
The new center won't just be available to students attending Richland Community College. The Illinois State Geological Survey also said it plans to also use the center to offer a series of courses to the public on energy conservation.
"Understanding and researching technology that will help us balance our environmental and our energy needs is essential to society," said Sally Greenberg, assistant director of the Advanced Energy Technology Initiative at the Illinois State Geological Survey. "We will look to what the best educational opportunities are and how to work with those."
Greenberg said the courses could last from anywhere between a week to an entire semester. The discussions could focus on topics like developing a carbon capture sequestration project, researching carbon capture sequestration, and implementing that research to other areas of science.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Energy Department said construction has begun on a $207 million project at Archer Daniels Midland. The goal is to capture one million tons of carbon dioxide a year and store it more than a mile underground starting in 2013.
The government has provided $141 million in financial support. The rest of the financing is private.
ADM also has a smaller, existing carbon-capture project at the site. The new project is one of several other government-backed carbon-capture projects being planned or built around the country.
Faculty at the University of Illinois will spend three years developing material for nuclear plants that sustain great levels of heat and run more efficiently.
The National Science Foundation is funding the project through a grant of more than $530,000. The grant will allow U of I researchers to see how resistant new materials used in reactors are to fracture and fatigue, as well as corrosion.
The principal investigator and U of I engineering professor James Stubbins said he and five other faculty members on campus will work to develop a system that is cooled with helium rather than water.
"You're not relying on making the steam," he said. "You're just relying on heating a gas to extremely high temperatures. And if you do that, you can run the helium through an engine that looks like a jet engine and extracts electricity that way, getting the efficiency of the system from the heat to the electricity from 30 or 35 percent up to maybe 60 percent."
Stubbins said nuclear reactors made by a material resembling stainless steel would make it easier to remove heat in the event of a disaster, like what occurred earlier this year at the Japan Fukushima nuclear plant.
"In these kinds of reactors, you have a much different problem in removing the heat if there's an accident than the Fukushima-type of reactor," he said. "This type of reactor is much more resistant to these kind of problems, with the inability of the potential inability to remove the heat from the reactor core itself if they have to shut down suddenly."
Stubbins said Japan is starting to develop the kind of material that is less susceptible to corrosion, but he said the US is on the verge of developing such a reactor. He said one being designed in Idaho is intended to reach these high temperatures, but there are no such projects underway in Illinois.
The White House has announced new fuel standards for trucks and buses. They will require trucks built between 2014 and 2018 to drastically reduce fuel consumption.
The new standards mean big changes for companies like Illinois-based truck manufacturer Navistar International Corporation, said Basili Alukos, an equity analyst with Morningstar.
According to Alukos, trucks have mostly removed their dangerous emissions. Now, 18-wheelers at Navistar will get their turn at better gas mileage.
"They typically do about a 150,000 miles a year and they get roughly six miles a gallon," Alukos said. "So I mean, it's ridiculous. If your car got that it'd basically make you broke."
Certain big-rigs will be required to cut fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 20 percent by 2018. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transporation, this would save four gallons of fuel for every 100 miles traveled.
Navistar has not yet announced what changes they will be making to their new trucks.
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